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It's happened to you on both ends, the giving and receiving, right? Someone you know comes out of a store and is followed by the manager and maybe the security guard or one of the sales people. What looks like an argument ensues.
Your child comes home from school and reports that the teacher picked on him, or that the principal insisted that the teacher leave school early and he took over the class.
You try getting in touch with a close friend. You call almost every day, sometimes twice a day, and you send email after email, first tentative, then questioning, then querulous, then demanding, then fearful.
Now let's reverse the situation and put you on the receiving end. Was that acquaintance being accused of theft? Or had he just reported one? Or had he just complimented the security guard or sales person and the manager had brought his worker out to hear the compliment in person. What looked like an argument was really animated praise.
Maybe that teacher "picks" on your child because, as you read in the note that comes in the mail the next day, she sees your child's potential, that he's got talent and needs to be nudged. Or maybe the principal knew that this devoted teacher had come to school with a debilitating migraine and he had sent her home to take care of herself.
And as for your friend - he calls you the next day, tearfully grateful for your concern. Your calls and emails, which he just couldn't answer, had been a great support.
Why couldn't he answer them?
You decide, because that's what this little exercise is all about. In Hebrew there's a term for it - melamed zechut. It means, basically, giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
Actually, it means more than that. It means finding a merit for a person. Justifying their actions, even if it seems implausible. Finding a positive explanation, often no matter how plausible. It means attributing the best of motives to another person, even if it's difficult for us to give up our self-righteousness.
Of course we're not talking about a case of actual lying or theft or suspending a proper skepticism about political pronouncements. To be melamed zechut, to give someone the benefit of the doubt, doesn't mean we should be a "fall guy" or a willing victim of a con game.
But in our encounters with those we know, with family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, frequently something occurs which, on the surface, justifiably arouses our suspicions or hurts our feelings. At that point, we need to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Not just because we would want it ourselves but because in order to be melamed zechut we have to put aside our egos, our almost arrogance, if you will.
It's not a case of putting ourselves in someone else's position. It's a case of humbling ourselves, recognizing the limitations of our own judgments, our own perceptions - and leaving both to the One Above.
For ultimately, when we're melamed zechut with someone else, the humility we engender in ourselves endears us to G-d, and He gives us the benefit of the doubt, when we need it the most.
This week's Torah portion, Ki Tissa contains the famous episode of the sin of the Golden Calf. After the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d told Moses: "Do not try to stop Me, and I will unleash My wrath against them and destroy them. And I will make you a great nation [in their stead]."
Moses refused to allow his people to be destroyed; he told G-d: "Please forgive them. If not, blot me out from the book which You have written."
Here we see the ultimate expression of leadership. Every leader realizes that he must make certain sacrifices for his followers, for in order to receive, you have to give. And most understand that for the captain of a ship to prosper, the crew and all of its passengers must also advance.
But this is no more than enlightened self-interest. The leader cares about himself. He is simply wise enough to appreciate that he will benefit most when the others around him also thrive.
Moses was above this form of barter. His commitment to his people was for their good and welfare, and not his own. He was not interested in the benefits his leadership could bring him; he wanted his people to succeed. Therefore, G-d's promise that his own seed would flourish did not interest him; his only concern was that his people should fulfill their purpose.
And so he told G-d: "If not, blot me out from the book." Some interpret this as referring to the book of life. Moses was telling G-d: "If I can't help my people achieve their purpose, I don't want to continue living." For his life was intertwined with his people's success.
Others explain that "the book" refers to the Torah. Moses cherished the Torah, G-d's wisdom, more than anything else. There was, however, one exception: the Jewish people. For them, Moses was willing to give up his connection to the Torah, G-d's book.
And for this same reason, Moses broke the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. The tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved were "the work of G-d... and the writing of G-d," given to Moses by G-d Himself. And yet when the future of the Jewish people was at stake, Moses broke the tablets without hesitation. For there was nothing dearer to him than his people.
And Moses' commitment to his people was non-judgmental. He was willing to make these sacrifices for them, not only when they lived up to the standards that he had set for them, but even when they failed to do so. He did not demand compliance for his commitment. He dedicated himself to his people as they were. For sure, he had his yardsticks, the principles and values which he strove so hard that his people live up to. But his love for them rose above these standards. He did not love them because they conformed to an image or an ideal he had. He loved them, and his love and commitment help mold them to match the ideals he held.
From Keeping in Touch: Torah Thoughts Inspired By The Works Of The Lubavitcher Rebbe, by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, published by Sichos In English.
Bringing Light to the World
by Sue Dremann
Rabbi Yosef Levin explains, "G-d created this world as a place of challenges. ... There is a reason for darkness. The challenges give us strength and make us shine," he said.
Recently, it was Levin's turn to shine. On his 50th birthday, a grateful Jewish community feted him and wife Dena for 25 years of providing a positive example. The couple has been pivotal in building a vibrant Jewish community in Palo Alto, through Chabad of Greater South Bay, many in the community said.
Sporting a long, flowing beard, broad-brimmed black hat, black suit and white shirt, the affable rabbi has built his reputation on the simple ideas of inclusiveness and understanding.
"I might look different, but I'm just a regular guy," Levin, 49, said.
His modest self-assessment underscores what many find so appealing about Levin. He has conducted his work modestly, one person at a time, resulting in significant accomplishments: helping the local Jewish community develop; reconnecting Jews to their faith; and giving support and sustenance to those in need - including non-Jews.
Palo Alto's Chabad Center had a humble start in 1975, when Rabbi Aaron Berkowitz was asked by the community to form the first local Chabad. The synagogue was in his garage, Levin said. It has since moved to Louis Road.
When the Levins first came to Palo Alto in 1980, there was "very little organized Jewish community," said Rabbi Bruce Feldstein, M.D., head of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford University Medical Center. He was referring to the lack of kosher delis and other Jewish services as well as a lack of cooperation between synagogues.
Ten years ago, Robert Nio, chairman of Chabad's board, was searching for the sort of religious community he experienced in Germany. Denominations there freely mix amid an Orthodox ceremony, but in the Bay Area he felt isolated.
"Moving here ... there was fractiousness, where people didn't mix, but Chabad and Rabbi Levin brought unity among many groups," he said.
"He's been a pioneer in the community. ... There was a lot of animosity between different denominations. ... One thing about Rabbi Levin is his openness to anyone in the Jewish community from any background," Feldstein said.
The Levins also expanded their outreach with Chabad centers at Stanford, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
"Many Jews are not involved in the community. Many are afraid of commitment; they're afraid to approach religion; they have a fear of acceptance. In the old shtetl, people had an infrastructure. Our focus is (building) a community people don't have, so we reach out to bring it to them," Levin said.
Levin invites people from all walks of life to his Friday evening Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners. He and Dena invite people to their home for dinner and conversation. A community dinner is held at the synagogue monthly.
It's a good place for those who are unfamiliar with their religion to glimpse some of the traditions that set it apart.
Driving isn't allowed from sundown Friday through sunset Saturday; neither is using a phone, shopping, taking a photograph, doing business, turning on lights, lighting a fire, using writing utensils or carrying anything.
These are not restrictions, Levin said. It is a time for the soul to be recharged. That is best done by removing everything associated with the every day.
An hour before sundown on a recent Friday evening, families hurried in the fading light, converging on the Chabad Center for prayer services and the monthly community meal.
Prayers ended. Levin said a blessing over a silver wine glass. He drank deeply from the cup, dividing up the remainder, and passed plastic cups of blessed wine around to other tables. Plates laden with kosher salad, pasta and gefilte fish were passed around.
Lois, a high school teacher, attended the Shabbat services and dinner at the urging of friends.
"I didn't know many Jewish people. ... I saw the people here were all happy, very warm people. Chabad has been a welcoming place, a place for gathering, where I could be surrounded by positive energy," she said.
Chabad has enjoyed other successes by reaching out to the community.
One of its greatest impacts has been through the Friendship Circle for children with disabilities, according to parent Nancy Brook.
Teenage "buddies" are paired with young children monthly for Jewish-themed crafts projects and music. Each week, a young teen also visits a child's home for a one-hour playtime.
"It's been an amazing experience for our children to have positive role models. The kids get to be part of a group. It builds a lot of self-esteem.
"Some kids have a hard time building relationships," she said, choking back tears. "These are noncompetitive, special friendships that promote nice Jewish values."
Two of the Levins' 13 children come weekly to play with Brook's children. "My little girls wait at the window for their buddy to come. It's a huge deal, to foster that relationship," Brook said.
Reaching out to the most isolated is where Levin does his most potent work; work that is invisible to the rest of the community, Feldstein said. He knew of a patient at Stanford Hospital who survived the Holocaust in Budapest by hiding in sewers. Levin took him under his wing.
"When he came to this country, he had no family. Chabad became his family," Feldstein said.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel and Rivka Zaklos will be arriving soon in Bryansk, Russia, to help restore vibrant Jewish life to that city. Bryansk, one of the oldest cities in Russia, is home to about one million people, among them an estimated 15,000 Jews.
Rabbi Shai and Naomi Vaknin are moving to Singapore where they will be working with the young adults in the local Jewish community.
Rabbi Bentzi and Rochi Sudak are relocating to Washington, DC where they will be joining American Friends of Lubavitch, reaching out to Jewish community and Jewish members on Capitol Hill.
Rabbi Zalman and Chani Wilhelm are establishing a new Chabad House at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
19th of Adar, 5729 
To the Friends of Lubavitch
Los Angeles, Calif.
Greeting and Blessing:
I was very gratified indeed to receive the encased Key, to the new Lubavitch Center in L.A., through your representatives who came to participate in the Purim celebration. No doubt, on their return, your distinguished representatives conveyed to you the words spoken here at the Purim Farbrengen [Chasidic gathering].
While the words spoken at such an auspicious occasion have a significance of their own, I also wish to convey to you in writing my heartfelt congratulations and prayerful wishes in addition to the blessing which has already been given by G-d Himself, whose reward for each and every good deed is most generous, coming from "His full, open, holy and ample Hand."
I reiterate the prayerful hope which I expressed to your distinguished representatives, namely that the new edifice be a center for various activities to spread goodness and kindness as embodied in our Torah, which is the true good, as it is written, "I have given you a good doctrine (Torah) " Moreover, that it be a "center" in the fullest sense namely that it extend its influence to the whole periphery. That is to say, that the spirit of the Center, namely the spirit of the Torah, Toras Chaim [the Torah of life], as it is permeated with Chasidic light, vitality and warmth, and based on the three loves - the love of G-d, the love of the Torah, and the love of our people Israel - which are one, should reach out to the entire periphery, and. indeed, beyond, to the whole of the West Coast.
Inasmuch as you have been privileged to be the initiators of this great and meritorious project, may G-d grant that you should also see it to its fullest realization, and enjoy the fruits of it to ripe old age, in good health and in true happiness. I also hope that you will be kind to your friends and neighbors and involve them too in this great work of the friends of Lubavitch.
Having just celebrated Purim, and in the spirit of the text of the Megillah [Scroll of Esther], may each and every one of you, in the midst of all our people, enjoy "Light, joy, gladness and honor, in the fullest sense of these meaningful words.
Wishing you the utmost Hatzlocho [success], and
With esteem and blessing,
19th of Adar, 5729 
Greeting and Blessing:
I was pleased to receive your regards through the visitors from L.A., who came to participate in the Purim Farbrengen. Their account of the progress made by the activities of Lubavitch and Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch on the West Coast, especially in connection with the new Center, are very encouraging. Particularly gratifying, of course, was their report about your current participation, and promise for the future, as I see also from your note which they conveyed to me.
My father-in-law of saintly memory, whose personal blessing you had the zechus [privilege] to receive, as I have heard, often reminded us that when a Jew resolves to do something good, he receives special aid from On High, in the form of new channels and means, to carry out his resolve fully and joyfully.
Moreover, our Sages of blessed memory tell us that it is in the nature of the Jew to strive for ever greater accomplish-ments, and in an increased measure. Thus, they said, "He who has 100 desires 200, and (having attained) 200 - he desires 400."
In the light of the above, and knowing of your family tradition as especially exemplified by your sister Mrs. E.-, whom I have occasion to meet personally, I am confident that when you will have fulfilled your present goals, you too will have a strong desire to raise your future goal.
May G-d grant that you should be able to do so in good health, and with joy and gladness of heart.
Why do we dip the bread in salt during the meal?
Our table is considered an altar and our food an offering. The Torah tells us, "On all your offerings bring salt." Many have the custom to dip three times because the numerical value of the Hebrew word, melach - salt - is three times that of G-d's four letter name.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
This Shabbat we read an additional Torah portion in the synagogue known as "Parshat Para" (the "red heifer"). In the days of the Holy Temple, if a person became spiritually unclean through contact with a dead body, the ashes of the red heifer rendered him clean. As a person had to be in a state of ritual cleanliness in order to bring the Passover offering, these laws were read publicly in the weeks leading up to the holiday.
Although we cannot bring offerings in the literal sense at present, the spiritual lessons they contain are timeless.
Our Sages likened mitzvot to the human body. Just as the body is composed of 248 limbs and 365 sinews, the Torah is composed of 248 positive and 365 negative commandments.
But the Torah is also likened to the soul. Just as the soul animates the physical body and transforms it into a living being, so too does the Torah enliven the practical mitzvot and illuminate them with its light. When a Jew studies Torah and understands the deeper significance of the commandments, his mitzvot are performed with joy and happiness, and with a heartfelt enthusiasm.
This principle sheds light on the Talmudic statement, "He who studies the laws of the burnt-offering is considered as if he has brought one." During the exile, when we cannot bring sacrifices in the literal sense, our study of the law stands in its stead. The mitzva of bringing the sacrifice, however, just like the human body, is limited by time and space; the actual mitzva can only be fulfilled in the proper time and at the proper location.
But our holy Torah, just like the soul, is spiritual; it is not limited by the restraints of time and place. Our study of the Torah's laws of offerings is therefore relevant and appropriate in any age and in any location.
As we gradually "rev up" for the Passover season, let us remember that every positive action we do draws nearer the day when "The spirit of uncleanliness I will remove from the earth," with the coming of Moshiach and the Final Redemption. May it happen immediately.
This they shall give - half a shekel coin (Ex. 30:13)
The shekel here alludes to the neshama, the soul. The words "shekel" and "neshama" have the same numerical value. Every Jew is given "half a soul" from above and his task is to complete the soul by elevating the second half to the level of the first.
(Rabbi Chanoch of Alexandria)
You shall make it incense (Ex. 30:23)
Atonement before the Alm-ghty is similar to appeasement among people. Although one may have completely forgiven another for some wrong, a remembrance still remains. The second time the same transgression occurs, it is not forgotten so easily. The same is true for our sins, which are atoned for by means of the sacrifices. Some "unpleasant odor" may still remain even after the atonement. The incense offering "wipes away" even that small remembrance.
(The Tzemach Tzedek)
Moses stood at the gates of the camp and said: "Those who are for G-d to me." And the entire tribe of Levi gathered to him. (Ex. 32:26)
Though the Levites were not the only ones who withstood the temptation to serve the idol, they were the only ones who were ready to take up arms against the idolworship. The others did not want to get involved in controversy.
Shortly before the Baal Shem Tov's passing, he gave each of his closest disciples a special task to enable Chasidism to continue to grow. One of his disciples, Reb Yaakov, was given the task of travelling from town to town telling about all he had seen in his years with the Baal Shem Tov.
Reb Yaakov carried out his mission for several years, but after a time, he yearned to return to his home. He began to wait for a sign that his mission had been fulfilled.
One day Reb Yaakov arrived in Italy. He had heard that in Rome lived a wealthy Jew who paid well for every story he was told about the Baal Shem Tov. Arriving at this Jew's house, Reb Yaakov was received royally and given the finest accommodations. He prepared a number of stories to tell on the coming Shabbat at the meals.
Shabbat arrived, and Reb Yaakov stood up to begin his tales. But, to his shock and horror, his mind went blank; he could recall not one story. The surprise of the crowd was no less than his own; only his gracious host was unperturbed by this strange lapse.
The host urged Reb Yaakov to rest, and try again later. Reb Yaakov went to his room and suddenly, in a flash, all the stories flooded his mind. However, the next day, on Shabbat afternoon, when he stood in front of the crowd to begin his tales, he again fell speechless. When, by the third Shabbat meal, Reb Yaakov was still unable to tell even one story, he was filled with overwhelming sadness and sorrow. "This must be a punishment from Above for some terrible misdeed of mine," thought Reb Yaakov to himself.
When Shabbat was over, and Reb Yaakov joined his host at the Saturday evening meal, the host cautiously said, "Now that we are alone, you might possibly be able to remember something about the saintly Baal Shem Tov." But try as he might, Reb Yaakov could remember nothing. With great embarrassment and sorrow, he told his host he would depart immediately.
"Please, don't hurry," begged the host. "Stay a few more days, and if by then you don't regain your memory, I won't detain you." When the appointed day arrived and Reb Yaakov could still not tell one story, he prepared to leave. But no sooner had he mounted his carriage when a story flashed into his mind.
He lost no time recounting the following story: "About ten years ago, just before the Christian holiday of Easter, the Baal Shem Tov and a few of his disciples set out on a journey to an unfamiliar town. The gentile townspeople were gathering in the main square to hear a sermon from their bishop. The Jews were terrified that the bishop's words would provoke violence from the crowd, and closeted themselves in their homes. But the Baal Shem Tov was completely unconcerned. In fact, he told me to approach the bishop with the order to come to the Baal Shem Tov at once.
"I delivered this message in Yiddish, exactly as the Baal Shem Tov had told me. The bishop showed no surprise, but told me he would come immediately following his sermon. I hastened back to the Baal Shem Tov and told him what the Bishop had said. The Baal Shem Tov told me to go to the Bishop and order him to come at once. When I told the Bishop the Baal Shem Tov's words, his face turned pale and he followed me without question. The Baal Shem Tov secluded himself with the bishop for many hours. Then, as suddenly as we had arrived, we returned home without even a word of explanation. And that's the end of my story."
The rich Jew listened with rapt attention, then suddenly exclaimed, "Thank G-d! The Alm-ghty be praised!" After calming down, he explained to Reb Yaakov, "Everything you've told me is true in every detail! I know it because I was there...I was that bishop!"
The host continued, "I was born and raised a Jew, but the lure of a great career tempted me to convert, for a Jew could not enter the university. At first I practiced my religion clandestinely, but little by little I forgot my origins.
"After I had attained the office of bishop, I began to be haunted by dreams and visions of my youth - it seems my holy ancestors had pity on my lost soul - but I was able to dismiss them from my mind. One night the Baal Shem Tov came to me in a dream and demanded that I return to my people. I began to think of repenting, but wondered if I had the strength. The night before my sermon, the Baal Shem Tov appeared to me again, saying that he was coming to help me. It was hard for me to break with my past, but I finally returned fully to our beautiful heritage. The Baal Shem Tov gave me instruction for carrying out my repentance. When I asked him how I would know that my repentance had been accepted, he replied: 'When a man comes to you and tells you the story of what happened that day, you will know that your repentance has been accepted.'
"I faithfully followed all of the Baal Shem Tov's instructions. When you came here, I recognized you immediately. And when you could not remember a single tale, especially my tale, I knew that my repentance was not yet complete. These past few days I have done a lot of soul searching and, thank G-d, now I know that my repentance has been truly accepted."
"Three things come unawares, namely, Mashiach, a found object, and a scorpion" (Talmud Sanhedrin) This teaching does not mean that a person should not (G-d forbid) think about the Redemption and anticipate its coming. It means that though his reason sees no possibility for Redemption, a Jew persists with an intense belief that transcends his reason. This meaning springs directly from the Hebrew idiom b'hesech hada'at (here translated "unawares"), which literally means "with one's reason set aside."